The Youth Group Lessons I've Had to Unlearn

A few church culture misconceptions that need correcting.

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a televised version of a youth conference on some obscure Christian channel on cable. It was the conference I attended every year as a high school student, the conference that deeply informed the way I understood and lived my faith.

I couldn’t believe it was on TV. I couldn’t believe I was sitting there, watching it.

In the opening segment, the speaker blamed comedians and sitcoms for the rise of “new atheism.” Next up was a skit about a new Christian kid named Travis who suddenly finds himself being “persecuted” by his former friends at school. “I am Travis, and my whole life has been leading up to this moment,” he narrates. “I have to be more than full of heart. I’ve got to be headstrong.”

Fifteen years later, it’s all exactly the same.

After my first book came out—a memoir, documenting my own somewhat toxic evangelical youth—people kept asking me, “What should we be doing differently with our teens?”

Instead of teaching kids that Jesus is something we have and they don’t, let’s teach them to look for the bright image of God in each person that crosses their paths.

I always stood there, blinking at that question. I still don’t really know, and I’ve been around the whole thing long enough to know that there’s no formula, no exact equation. But I think there are some problematic messages I learned growing up in church that we’re communicating to our youth still today.

Here are three things I've had to unlearn:

1. Your Classmates/Peers/Friends/Teachers are Going to Persecute You for Your Faith.

One of the recurrent themes in my Christian youth was the pressure to stay strong for God around peers and teachers who, I was told, would be antagonistic toward my beliefs. So many talks and sermons and rally-sessions wrapped tight around this topic, constricting my chest with the urgency of knowing how to accurately and compellingly disseminate the specifics of the Christian faith to others—even if they mocked me for it.

I spent the duration of junior high and high school braced against the entire student body, sure that they secretly mocked/hated/despised me. I wore Christian T-shirts like some kind of bullet-proof vest. I memorized all of the brilliant apologetic arguments in favor of Christianity in case any teacher or student ever cornered me in the hall and forced me to debate my faith.

But no one ever did.

What actually happened is that I distanced myself from everyone who didn’t believe like I did. It wasn’t that they didn’t like me—it was that I had barred my arms in an eternal defensive pose, and no one could even get close. So after a while, they stopped trying.

I understand that there are places in the world where persecution exists. And it’s  is not something to take lightly. But the American cultural climate, right now, is not violent toward Christians. And despite the popularity of Christian movies like God’s Not Dead, I’d argue that 99 percent of teachers are not in it to shatter students’ faith. And yes—kids can be cruel. But, in the land of first-world problems, it’s usually not about anything quite as noble as religious beliefs.

I’d love to see youth pastors and teachers who refuse to play into that “Us” and “Them” paradigm. Who encourage, instead, their students to understand that we are all so much the same—complicated and quirky and broken and beloved.

Instead of teaching kids that Jesus is something we have and they don’t, let’s teach them to look for the bright image of God in each person that crosses their paths.

2. Your Friends’ Salvation Hinges on How Well You Can Defend the Gospel.

In this stage of their faith, kids tend to ignore conflict and inconsistencies in their beliefs—simply because they’re not equipped, yet, to deal with those complexities.

Jesus is the Savior, and we are not. We might get to play some small role in the redemption narrative of someone else, but if we do, it won’t be because we’ve got the perfect defense.

This is normal and OK. It’s an essential stage of their faith development. But when we combine it with the urgent, heavy responsibility to witness to their friends and bring revival to their schools, we’re inadvertently creating an atmosphere in which cliches, trite answers and Christian T-shirts pass for “evangelism.”

Let’s start by telling them this instead: You can’t save anyone.

Jesus is the Savior, and we are not. We might get to play some small role in the redemption narrative of someone else, but if we do, it won’t be because we’ve got the perfect defense or memorized the right Scriptures or read the right books.

Instead of teaching our youth group kids six different ways to explain “the Romans Road” to their friends, let’s take this time we have with them to show them Jesus. Let’s do it not so that they’ll have a perfect defense when someone asks about their faith, but simply because He is unfathomably beautiful, because His love is so deep that we cannot see the bottom.

Later, when they begin to grapple with the inconsistencies and the doubts and the hard things in their faith, it won’t be trite answers that see them through. It will be that glimpse they’ve had of the beauty of God. It will be the muscle memory of having dived deep into something real. And if and when their friends question them about their faith, it won’t be about showing them a diagram. It will be about showing them Jesus.

3. You Have to Do Something to Make a Difference for God.

Youth group kids are so often pulsing with possibility, wild with hope and optimism. They want to do BIG THINGS.

It’s natural to want to tap into that desire—to show them that faith itself can be exciting and extraordinary and dangerous and beautiful.

But at the same time, what we don’t need is a bunch of kids hopped up on a kind of Red-Bull-faith—over-caffeinated and overtired and then, finally, crashing into the ground. I belonged to a generation of on fire kids who careened like fireworks through the dark world and then burned out. We don’t need that.

The Christian walk is a long journey—so often mundane and difficult, putting one foot in front of another—seeing nothing, feeling nothing. And linking faith with extraordinary actions and extraordinary feelings makes it so much harder for us when we slam into the inevitable ordinary.

What we don’t need is a bunch of kids hopped up on a kind of Red-Bull-faith—over-caffeinated and overtired and then, finally, crashing into the ground.

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Yes, let’s get excited with our kids about their dreams. Let’s encourage their passion and their hearts. But also, let’s make sure that underneath that, we are offering a steady drumbeat of timeless truth.

You can’t do anything to make God love you more.

You can’t do anything to make God love you less.

You are already enough.

God is already doing amazing things through you—even if it all feels hopelessly average.

This article was originally posted on Addiezierman.com

Top Comments

Daniel Rogers

1

Daniel Rogers commented…

Addie, I appreciate your thoughts and think you bring up some very good points. Our youth groups are so often run like war camps outside the trenches where our youth are re-armed with spiritual bullets to "shoot" back at the world. I agree that it absolutely should not be that way, but it feels a little like you may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

We should be teaching our youth the "why" behind their belief in the Gospel beyond simply basking in the beauty of God. Sometimes simply living in awe of Him is wonderful. Other times when it feels that the heavens have shut and we can't feel God, we need to be held fast by the promises in scripture to remind us that our faith is based on so much more than feeling.

I also believe, much like James, that faith without works is dead. I don't think we should pile heaps and heaps of expectation on our youth to carry the load of the church, but youth or anyone else that claim Christ as Lord will naturally bear some fruit in their actions. Again, your points are valid, but I hope we don't think that this generation of youth is so fragile that we can't expect them to begin tackling some of these challenges and benchmarks of faith.

Thanks again for your honesty and insight!

Aaron Priebe

8

Aaron Priebe commented…

1. Your Classmates/Peers/Friends/Teachers are Going to Persecute You for Your Faith.
Every person grows up in a different world. The thing about the world is that it is subjective and relative for each person. Maybe you didn't grow up with people attacking your faith but I did. I had several teachers try to give me lower grades based on comments about faith added to papers I wrote. The comments were relative to the topic in the paper, and added to the thesis. Comments from teachers like, "If you're a christian you're a racist," literally came out of my teachers' mouths. Not all of them, but having the perspective coming out of youth group, having been taught that "people" will persecute you for your faith is simply factual. Youth group never taught me that all people would, but that persecution would come. Isn't that biblical? We're not of the world and so the world hates us? I'd like to see how you can back this point biblically.

2. Your Friends’ Salvation Hinges on How Well You Can Defend the Gospel.
I understand the reference to the Roman's Road trash. Those booklets might be good for an alien race having never heard of any form of religion. But what about "And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it." 1 Peter 3:15? If we don't educate people about the faith then how can anyone be ready to explain it?

3. You Have to Do Something to Make a Difference for God.
If we're placed in this world and are not part of it, aren't we all here to do something? I agree that not everyone is going to do headline news work in the world, but how about helping widows and orphans? How about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting people in their need? (Matthew 25:43) Maybe you won't mean much to the world, but to a person or a handful of people you might mean the world. Isn't that huge?

I think your post does nothing to build anyone up. You're ridiculing an era of individuals who donated their time to try to raise you up to be something better in this world. Of course they failed, everyone fails, but they were there in your life trying to make a difference. Your post is also not relevant as you're speaking to a bygone time, plus the items I mentioned regarding your main points.

41 Comments

Avery

2

Avery commented…

Addie,
A couple of your thoughts are valid and should be addressed in the Church today. I agree we put too much of an emphasis on students to share the gospel and we often act like that determines whether or not the person will be saved. Christ should always be the only one exemplified and I'm glad you made that point. However, I highly disagree with you on the other parts. Biblically speaking, we are the salt and light of this earth. We are set apart, made holy when we choose to follow Jesus. We are a new creation, blameless in front of Jesus! We are being made more like Him everyday as we surrender our lives and ask that His will be done instead of ours. In Philippians, Paul says our inheritance is in heaven and in Galations, he describes the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we are transformed to being more like Jesus. Paul says before we were made new, we were evil and our desires were of this world. But, now that we're made new in Christ, we are a new creation. How does this come across to you as we are the same as non-Christians? I agree we need to be kind and loving to everyone, but I definately think there is some sort of an "us and them". As Christians, we need to stop blurring the line. Let's stand up and take ahold of our faith! I also disagree with you when you degraded high schoolers big ideas. Yes, sometimes they can be very irrational ideas, but we do not serve a rational God! Let's stop belittling the younger generation. There is no age limit to God, and if we're all following the same God, there should be no age limit for us either. The Lord plants those little thoughts in our heads. He knows us and chooses us to be part of His family and to further His kingdom. Whether we're 26, 40, or 99, He still believes in us and loves us the same. I challenge you to do the same. The second we lose hope in the youth, they'll lose hope in themselves.

Monique Lynn

4

Monique Lynn replied to Avery's comment

Yes, sometimes they can be very irrational ideas, but we do not serve a rational God!
- Oh dear.

Avery

2

Avery replied to Monique Lynn's comment

Let me restate that– our God is always rational and His works are always good! But we might not think they are rational in human eyes.

Olivia Blase

3

Olivia Blase replied to Avery's comment

I wonder if Jesus thought there was an "us and them" who would be the 'us' and who would be the 'them'

Adam Schweitz

2

Adam Schweitz replied to Olivia Blase's comment

"I agree we put too much of an emphasis on students to share the gospel and we often act like that determines whether or not the person will be saved."--- No offense to you here, And I would love to have you explain more, but if you are a follower of Jesus, emphasizing that we share the Gospel is mandated by the one you claim to follow. His very last command to his Disciples was to GO and share the Gospel. (Matthew 28) you cannot make disciples without sharing the Gospel, Jesus called us to be disciples that make disciples who would make disciples. A Disciple Cycle if you will.

Ted Campbell

1

Ted Campbell commented…

Some of my former youth group kids (some now in their fifties) asked what I thought about this column.
Agree and disagree. This is a bit simplistic. You'll notice that I did not teach that "everyone is out to persecute you" or that you had to have all the answers, and certainly didn't encourage kids to bar themselves against associating with their non-Christian friends at school. Saying that there is no persecution in America today does show that Addie still has her head in the sand . . . especially in Middle School, high school and college . . . it is a real problem today. Certainly we should "live the life" so others can see Jesus in us, we should look for the good and be friends with them, and we should have answers when they ask for answers. Our kids led most of their friends to the Lord (thousands of them) by (1) being different, (2) associating with good kids living good and exciting lives, (3) bringing their friends into a loving and accepting group, and (4) personally showing them how Jesus had changed and improved their lives. Should we encourage the kids to "be on fire" and "dream big dreams"? Of course, and we should help them focus on what the Lord uniquely shaped them to do most effectively, and them place them in situations where they would be most successful (music, sports ministry, building, camping, one-on-one ministries, etc.). I also tried to teach them that there would be tough times, dry times, ordinary times . . . but that they should just trust the Lord, stay in the Scripture, and learn what He was trying to teach them . . . perhaps in preparation for new and even greater ministry. The idea of "loving God" and "loving people" is of course good, but, in a world totally collapsing around us . . . hardly the recipe for changing the world. The author in young, and I'm sure the Lord will teach her new insights as she seeks to do things "His way."
Ted Campbell (New America Singers)

Jenn Bateman

1

Jenn Bateman commented…

Loved the article and wholeheartedly agree.
Can't stand the Christian whine about how persecuted they are for their faith. For the most part t's so unfounded especially when many Christians often and repeatedly pass judgement and act in fear for anything outside of their beliefs/ values.
Also loved the line about 'on fire kids' who burned out. I am so familiar with that. Instead I want my own children to have a youth group experience that's about how God is a part of all of their lives. They don't need one big act of faith, but instead to recognize and carry his love in every part of their lives.
Thanks for this. Very well said. Makes me think about the small ways I can redirect my kids when they get to this age.

Abigail Elizalde

1

Abigail Elizalde commented…

While there is health is reflecting on how much there is to unlearn from a youth group culture (since it can be unnatural in many ways to separate age groups within the faith), there is almost no mention here of the gospel. I had hoped the reflections would be based primarily on the fact that much of the shaping of young people in the Western church focus little on whether the young person has been truly born again by the power of the gospel. And then whether the shaping of that person is rooted wholly on gospel truth rather than giving advice for life based on experience.
Comments like "you are already enough," for example, express an idea contrary to the message also. It is not inherent worth, but the grace of God displayed in Christ despite our unworthiness.
Without the reality, we will just pass around advice that has no power to actually transform people.

Olivia Blase

3

Olivia Blase replied to Abigail Elizalde's comment

What is the gospel? We throw around the phrase "there is no mention of the gospel" but I wonder if we stop and think enough about what the gospel is?

suzyq

8

suzyq commented…

Great article! If I guess your age correctly, you were in the era where youth ministry had taken off and become a gathering place for so many that were unchurched... along side with the church. The main theme was bring them in... through fun events and salted with Jesus. This worked for that era, but today... these young people are more savvy and street-wise like never before. They are exposed to so much through social media. Time is precious and they have stuff going on in all aspects between school, sports, social life and their families. I love the way our youth director does ministry... his priority is discipleship and mission. Our kids are spiritually mature and really get it... it is who they are in Christ that leads others to know Him... and to ask what makes their life different. They love their friends unconditionally... and in the midst of their own bumps, warts and all... they are real people who understand their vulnerabilities and need for their life to be grounded.

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